Beginners are friends, not food

Ever struggle with beginners? Ever find the new guy doing weirdly well? It’s a strange experience, having someone come in ‘off the street’ and giving more trouble than someone who’s been training for months. This tends to be more of a thing with the striking arts, but can happen to grapplers as well, and though there is an easy, clear way to deal with the newbie, you really shouldn’t do it.

I think the reason people do so well early on is their lack of fear. They can swing for the fences, not realizing what can and can’t hurt them, their punches wild and unpredictable and therefore hard to deal with. A lot of what makes a technique good in striking is not just the damage you can inflict, but the damage you avoid taking. Defensive responsibility is an important, and often overlooked aspect early on in training. Next time you spar someone your level, notice that they stop coming forwards even if you hit them lightly (or at least they should) and notice that a complete novice can be the exact opposite. The experienced fighter knows what would have hurt them, and backs off because of it. The way to deal with a reckless beginner then? Pressure them. Be mean. Hit them. They’ll cover up, and if they don’t, they’ll take damage. If they’re not defending themselves, make them defend themselves, or punish them for not doing so. They’ll stop trying to take your head off one way or another.

BJJ can have a similar phenomenon, with beginners latching on to your head, your arms, stifling your movement and stopping you submitting them. The solution here? You’ve got two options. First, dominate position – it’s hard to submit anyone who is staying tight and defensive, but BJJ isn’t really about submitting your opponent, it’s about controlling them. It’s so common for people at the start of their BJJ journey to claim to be great defensively, but that mostly comes from a lack of understanding about the position they’re in. A beginner might stay alive by being defensive, but they wont do ‘well’. And as for your second option – be mean. If newbies are going to grind their elbows into your ribs and thighs, and make positions uncomfortable and unpleasant, do it back to them. If they’re going to stay tight and defensive, open them up with whatever you can.

So whichever martial art you’re in, if you’re dealing with beginners who are doing well out of ignorance, the solution is to be mean. And whichever sport you’re in, if you are dealing with beginners this way, you’re an asshole. Seriously, don’t do it. Unless they’re smashing people smaller than them and need a check of their own, there’s no reason.

Being upset that you didn’t destroy a beginner is completely born out of ego. And really, what do you gain out of it? I doubt your skills will improve from fighting people who don’t know what they’re doing. If you’re training for a fight/match/competition you shouldn’t be sparring those people, and if you’re not getting ready for something like that, what is gained from crushing them? They wont come back to the gym, the martial arts family wont grow, and someone is just going to end up upset because you wanted to feel big. If you’re the sort of person who does that, I wouldn’t want you training with me in any case.

The way to deal with beginners who are doing weirdly well? Beat them up. The thing to do with beginners who are doing weirdly well? Help them grow. You’ll learn, they’ll learn, and everyone wins.

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You call that a fight? This is a fight.

What do you count as a fight? This question seems to come up a lot in the MMA/BJJ world. Not so long ago McGregor was using it to discredit boxing, more commonly it’s used by MMA fighters to put down BJJ, and then more self-defense oriented people might use it to discredit all of the above. People can get really hung up on the distinction, and some people get very offended if you say they’re not fighting, but why are we so eager to define something as a fight or not? And how should we decide?

We could start with the broadest definition – physical confrontation and competition. I think this has some merit, after all, watching a high pace grappling match can look much like a fight. Except this could potentially include all contact sport, rugby and basketball included, so I think by anyone’s definition this would be too broad. So if we then define it as sports predominantly using ‘combat’ techniques we could be left with things like wrestling and BJJ. In the former you are utilizing some of the most fundamental fighting techniques, as have been used for generations, and in the latter you are trying to submit an opponent, to render them defenseless. At its most basic level, submitting an opponent is them saying that you would have killed them, or broken their arm and then killed them, or something along those lines. Thinking about it, that’s a huge amount of trust to put in someone, and makes me feel a little bit odd about rolling with strangers. The only issue with this, is that BJJ just doesn’t seem like a fight to me. Before I get onto the mats, even in competition, it does not feel like a ‘fight’ – even with submissions the idea is not to hurt your opponent, it’s to put them in a position where they have no option but to give up, hurting or not. The fear of damage just isn’t there. It feels like a contest with far lower stakes, and I feel like a fight is something more than a grappling match.

So what about damage? If you define a fight as a competition where you are looking to win by damaging your opponent, I think you’re getting much closer to the truth. This is normally the argument used against Jiu-Jitero that think they’re fighting, and now means that only when you get to boxing and similar sports are you having a ‘fight’. Now there is the fear. Now there is the real worry about getting hurt. Now, rather than submitting your opponent and hopefully not damaging them, you’re hitting someone until their body gives up or someone steps in to save them. This feels more like the panic inducing, terrifying ‘fight’ that seems so much more real than a potentially fun grappling match. And yet, lately people have discredited boxing of its ‘fight’ label, claiming that only in MMA can you get a real fight.

So why MMA? I suppose it’s the number of tools at your disposal, and the much more lenient rules. Suddenly you bring in elbows, kicks, submissions and slams. There are no rules regarding knockdowns and 8 counts, you’re either knocked out or you keep on going. MMA too has a legitimate argument as being as close as you can get to a ‘real’ fight, but perhaps that’s where it falls apart – as close as. Because despite the potential for damage, there is a referee to save you. There are rounds. There are rules. There is sportsmanship. There might be fear at what will happen to you, but except in freak circumstances there’s no real danger of your opponent continuing to beat you long past when you have lost consciousness, no fear of death.

Perhaps then, the only ‘real’ fights are street fights, brawls without rules and where the stakes could be that much higher. This argument tends to upset the more touchy MMA fighters who might feel that it goes against their self image, but again, it has merit. People can argue for hours about whether something is a fight or not, if introducing any safety measures discredits it, but honestly, does it matter? I think the real question isn’t whether something is a fight or not, but what do you get out of it?

Debating semantics has always annoyed me (in life in general, not just fighting) because whether something is a fight or not I think it should be judged on its merits, not its label. I mean really, when you compete in MMA, or boxing, or anything else, if the idea is to overcome physical confrontation, fear, and challenge, why do you give a damn if it’s a ‘fight’ or not? This is a personal journey for any athlete, martial artist, or whatever else you call yourself, and other people’s opinions shouldn’t change that. I would probably count a fight based on the potential for damage argument, since that’s what’s going to introduce the nerves and the fear and the obstacles, but it’s not like it matters. If a BJJ competition does all these things, then good on you – who cares what someone else labels it? The name of something isn’t going to change what you get out of it, so don’t bother defining it. Worry less about a title, and more about what you get out of something. Your MMA match, fight, or whatever you call it isn’t going to change no matter what you call it. In short, it is what it is.

Enter the Trashtalker

The face of martial arts has changed pretty drastically over the years. Its been good for the growth of the sport to have the drama and the craziness, but I wonder if it’s started to go too far. What once helped the sport get mainstream recognition may now be limiting how far it can reach. 

I’m late to the party with this one, but after the shit-show that was the run up and post-fight fight of Khabib vs Connor I had to get a post out of some sort. In all honesty, I’m not that mad at either of them about what went down: they are fighters, they didn’t actually do anything that bad (bar the dolly incident), and I understand the reasons both of them have for what they’ve done of late. In order for the sport to progress though, this sort of thing needs to stop.

Let’s start with Khabib. Despite everyone freaking out about him attacking Dillon Danis, nothing that bad really happened. Oh sure, some people got punched, but they do this for a living. They do it for fun. They are used to it, and it’s not surprising then that nobody is filing any charges. Fighters are a weird community, but it’s generally accepted as code that you don’t sue for this kind of thing. It was pretty stupid that Khabib did this in the middle of however many thousand people there were in the arena, but tensions were running high and I’d be surprised if he considered the wider effects of what he was doing. In a way I’ve got more respect for him – he doesn’t bullshit, and he follows through and ‘defends his honor’, and he’s clearly the real deal. Most people put up a front and make a fake persona, but not this man, and that alone is something to respect. Besides, the only people upset that Danis got punched are people who don’t hear him talk.

I do, however, think that Khabib needs to be punished. Most people who train aren’t too bothered by him, but they’re not who we need to win over; we need public acceptance of MMA as a legitimate athletic endeavor, and at the moment we just aren’t getting there. Growth of the sport is good for everyone, but without appealing to a wider audience we’re just not going to get traction. Compare the public engagement of boxing with that of mixed martial arts – Anthony Joshua is on billboards, posters, talk shows and adverts, while not so long ago Michael Bisping was a British UFC champ with a fraction of that exposure. So I’ll admit that there are a few key differences between Bisping and AJ in terms of marketability, but I think the point still stands. Almost everyone knows Joshua and almost nobody knows his UFC counterpart, and I think everyone involved in mixed martial arts wants that to change.

Unfortunately though, the marketing plan for the UFC is too set in its ways. To an extent it works, but I think the trash talking and drama model is getting out of hand. It functions for a while – Conors antics generated the biggest fight in history after all – but if it boils over it sets us back so far. Listening to Justin Wren on the JRE, talking about a friend who watched the UFC, loved it, and then had it soured by that last brawl, really highlights the issue. We need engagement from the ‘casuals’. Those crazed press conferences might have drawn all the eyes to the event, but the eventual and not at all surprising conclusion probably turned a lot of people away from future ones. There needs to be some tempering of how far all the trash talking goes before it explodes again and we have to scramble to save what face we can. As much as I like shocking relatives by claiming to be a cage fighter, I do want to convince them that I’m a legitimate martial artist as well.

I don’t actually blame Conor that much. Unacceptable as what he was saying was, he’s just exploiting the system he’s in. It also looks like he understands where he’s gone ‘too far’, and I wonder if that was what made him tell Khabib ‘it’s only business’ – he just values wealth over being socially acceptable. Honestly, is that so surprising, or unusual? Calling him mean isn’t going to change the way he acts. If he’s just exploiting the system, we need to change the system, and maybe fit the UFC and western MMA as a whole to a different model.

Listening to Robin Black talk about One Championship is interesting. It’s got a different focus, about a connection with your ancestry, about a group of artists, not fighters. And think, when’s the last time you heard about a One Championship fighter leaping out of the cage and starting a brawl? This organization has a different philosophy at heart, and it shows. And what was it that got people into martial arts in generations past? Enter the Dragon did not involve the kind of nonsense that combat sports are marketed with nowadays, but might have inspired more people than any other piece of media in recent history. It was the honor and the discipline aspect that inspired people to begin their martial arts journeys, something a bit more inspiring that making money. If we want MMA to get more public recognition and acceptance we need a more One Championship approach from the UFC.

Sadly, I doubt it will happen. I don’t like to be a pessimist, but I just don’t see individual athletes possibly losing out on their personal wealth, and the UFC is not looking at that sort of long term growth of the sport. At the moment, western MMA is limiting its own growth with it’s current marketing strategy and we’re just going to get more and more of these controversies, like a bubble inflating and collapsing just as we start to get widespread recognition, starting again from five steps back. Even changing that strategy though, it will take years to get anywhere bigger, and people are going to loose money in the meantime -with careers only lasting a few years, fighters are never going to pay that short term price so the sport can grow in a few generations. With the UFC promoting and rewarding the sort of behaviors that lead to this post fight brawl, it’s almost inevitable that this will all happen again when someone gets pushed too far, or something gets out of hand, once again limiting the breakout into mainstream acceptance. I’d be very surprised if organizations change their money making formula at this point. The growth of our sport is limited as it is, and sadly, it’s not about to change.

The Gym of Hard Knocks

A common debate in the striking arts and MMA is how often, or even if, you should be sparring hard. Some people say that you should train how you fight, others think you should ensure longevity and lack of injury. As with most things, I expect the truth is somewhere in between. Consider AKA, home of greats like Daniel Cormier and Cain Velasquez – from all reports they train like savages, wars in the gym, sparring like they fight, and the gym brings out champions like no other. But look at the cost. They are notorious for pre-fight injuries, and it’s no surprise. Worse than that, Velasquez is broken, perhaps never to fight again; a champion once, now the recipient of surgery after surgery, his back so injured that he cannot compete. I suspect the optimum is somewhere a little less then, perhaps taking it a bit easier. Heavy enough to build a champion, but light enough to not break them.

Ask yourself, why would you fight? In the short term, is it for a career? I suspect the better way to earn a living is not being injured before fights. Not so long ago Max Holloway pulled out for ‘concussion-like symptoms’, which I have little doubt was brought on through hard sparring, and though everyone talks about Tony Furguson’s loss to an electric cable as a ‘freak accident’ you only need look at his training videos to see what might have weakened his leg. I cringe every time I see him deadlift. You need to fight to earn, whatever level you’re at, and being an unreliable fighter won’t look good in a promoters eyes. You need to experience some heavy sparring to get used to it, sure, but what’s the cost long term? You may win for a while, but it’s likely to be a short career.

There are other costs to consider. Bodies degrading is bad enough, but CTE is the thing I fear the most. It’s why I aim to use BJJ as my main tool as a martial artist, because even if I take a beating in fights I’ll take much less in training, which really is where most of the damage occurs. What’s the point in wining great victories if you can’t remember them in ten years time? If I were ever to open a gym, I would like to think it would be in the hopes of improving people’s lives, helping them to learn about themselves, not churning out champions at any cost. If people want to smash each other into punch-drunk messes that’s up to them, but I’ll never encourage it. It wasn’t so long ago that we lost the great Muhammad Ali to parkinsons, likely induced from his years of training. It’s sad to see heroes of the past degrading like that, and if it was someone who you knew, coached, or trained and sparred with, how will you feel then?

I am a huge fan of the movement towards lighter sparring in gyms. There are plenty of people who are successful at the highest levels without hard sparring, and even if the fighters produced are not so great it’ll likely improve people’s health dramatically. Not only that, but an improved public image is good for everyone involved. Lighter sparring is likely to make peoples lives better in the long run, and ultimately I think that’s what’s most important.

Ask yourself, what do you want to get out of training and competing, and what are you willing to give for it? Is a championship necessary for you to obtain, and if so, at what cost? I’ve got no definitive answers for you, but I think plenty of people are paying far too high a price for what they’re getting, which – lets be honest – isn’t usually a title. Stop having gym wars, stop taking shots to the head, and ask yourself, is it worth it?

Learn to cripple; it makes everyone safer

Prohibition doesn’t help anyone.

Leglocks split the community, some people loving them and some people hating. The haters usually argue that they’re too dangerous to teach until you’re an expert, and others think there’s no real risk from them at all – I think I sit somewhere in the middle. They probably are a bit more dangerous than many other techniques, but to not teach them? That’s one thing that makes this whole situation so much worse than it needs to be.

A common argument is the tiny margins between technique application and damage – people seem to think that there are millimeters between putting a technique on and destroying a knee. I think this is a bit over-exaggerated, after all, I’ve seen a lot of pain in people being heel hooked without being crippled, but it’s a fair point that people may not know how far to let the techniques go. But how do you find out? Practice, of course. If people never try a move and never feel how far something goes, how do they ever expect to know where the leg will bend to? It’s a self fulfilling prophecy: people are afraid of leg locks being dangerous, so they don’t drill them, which means they never learn their limits, which means that leg locks really are dangerous. The same could be said of any technique, and you need to learn to tap to keylocks and chokes in the same way. Without practice you’ll never learn either how far you can push it, and when you need to say ‘uncle’.

It’s also worth noting that in a chaotic sport such as BJJ, with some extremely blurred lines between techniques, you might be surprised by something unorthodox. With straight ankle locks allowed everywhere, and knee bars often permitted, you might be surprised with what people can get away with. Even if you don’t plan on doing the whole range of leg attacks in competition it’s worth getting used to them in a controlled, practice environment for when those grey areas come along. Knowledge of proper defense here is important, as you can turn a controlled attack into a serious injury if you start rolling the wrong way. It’s a pretty simple detail to learn, but people frequently overlook it.

I’d also advise learning leg locks earlier than later. Too many higher belts that I’ve met have never learned leg attacks, and now they don’t plan to – I get it: they have one part of their game at such a high standard it makes no sense to compete in a different field, but it’s a shame anyway. This doesn’t happen because the moves are any more dangerous, it’s just because these moves haven’t been properly learned. I’m pretty sure the IBJJF is 100% to blame for this – without their arbitrary controls on legal and illegal submissions and positions, many of these high level grapplers would have gone down a different path. I doubt the IBJJF will change their minds on this one, so I can only hope that more people start taking part in competitions from other organizations and branching out a bit.

When I roll with people I wont surprise them with a heel hook – I’ll ask if they play legs, and how much they want to do. The funny thing is, most people will agree to leg locks, but will ask that I don’t ‘snap it on’ or something like that. Is this why people think leglocks are dangerous? Have we somehow gained a reputation for trying to cripple people? We don’t all hang pictures of Palhares above our beds. Realistically you shouldn’t be slamming on any techniques, whatever they happen to be, so I don’t know why anyone expects leg locks to be attacked so viciously. Honestly, that shouldn’t be a worry if you’re rolling in a sensible way.

The thing I find strangest is that people seem to get injured in other areas far more often than they do in leg lock exchanges. People hurt themselves in takedowns, jumping guard, gritting out kimuras, or just scrambling. Out of all the grappling arts I’m quite sure BJJ has one of the lowest serious injury rates – judo and wrestling are much worse in comparison, and I don’t think leglocks change that. Jumping guard is one of the riskiest things you can do, and out of everything it is probably the most dangerous for your legs, and yet it’s allowed from blue belt while knee reaping is banned. Why is this? Honestly, I don’t believe that the IBJJF has a serious system for what is or is not permitted at each belt, and I’d love to get some insight into the reasoning. If people are concerned about leg injuries, fine, but at least be sensible about what you do or do not allow.

Whatever the case, with breaking the bottom 50% of the human body being so in-vogue right now, most people are going to try out leg locks at some point. Better than prohibiting these moves and having people hurt themselves with bad technique, I would like to see more leg locks taught, or at least introduced, at an earlier level. People are going to try them for themselves at some point. The thing that makes these techniques most dangerous is coaches avoiding them so religiously, and I think the only way to make them less terrifying is to show leg locks as the legitimate techniques that they really are. Prohibition never seems to help anybody.

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Creonte and proud

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I’ve left ExileMMA three times. Once at the end of uni, once when I left to do an internship, and most recently upon moving to London. I’ll be back to visit, of course, but I do think that it’s for good this time. Between these periods of leaving Exile I have trained at several different academies and gyms, and even while I was there I trained with the university team, NGMA, and my home gym, ImpactMMA. I’ve always had several instructors at once. I expect this will sound a little arrogant, but I think this bouncing around is probably the reason that I’ve never been graded. Even so, I think this method has its benefits.

The most obvious advantage of flitting between gyms is seeing the range of techniques and strategies that different coaches employ. Some favor judo, some favor wrestling, and in other gyms I’ve barely seen any takedowns at all. It’s interesting. At a gym that doesn’t like leglocks? Pop in somewhere else and see what the hype is about. If you don’t like them, fair enough, but if you do enjoy them it might be something you want to pursue. People tend to teach what they’re good at, which is sensible, but when a student does not fit so well with his instructors style that can be a bit of a problem. More than that, I think seeing different strategies and philosophies provides a more profound lesson: discovering different outlooks and methodologies alters not only what you learn, but how you learn it. Exposure to many people and ideas lets you find what suits you best. People gave described my game as ‘weird’, but I think it’s more than that. I think that exposure to so many styles has given me a game that’s specific to me and closer to the style that’s perfect for myself. I’m not saying its the best game in the world, I’m just saying that it’s mine.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t affiliate with one academy, or branch of academies, but visiting elsewhere now and then is healthy. Over reliance on regular training partners means that you get used to their strengths, patterns and techniques. By rolling with a stranger you are thrust into the unknown, and suddenly may find flaws in your technique and holes in your game. You’ll get the same revelations from competition, but it’s my opinion that it’s better to learn these before there’s a medal on the line.

I think matsurfing is pragmatic, and good for developing as a competitor. Beyond that though, it’s a social venture. I don’t know what it is about BJJ, but I’ve never been to a gym I’ve not liked. The openness of the BJJ community is one of the things that makes it so attractive, and visiting elsewhere and seeing how welcoming everyone is the most compelling argument for Jiu-Jitsu as a community maker that I’ve found. With so much mixing in events and competitions in BJJ you’re likely to see everyone that you meet at some point, so why not meet as many as you can? Anything that knits the community closer is good in my opinion. You may even end up  training with some people who you compete against, but that’s fine as well – this isn’t MMA, BJJ matches aren’t ‘fights’, and we ought to all be able to get along before and after we grapple.

It’s for these reasons that I’m a big fan of organizations like BJJ globetrotters: always allowing people one week of training and welcoming people in is this sort of attitude that will develop Jiu-Jitsu in all aspects. It’s a real shame when instructors and gyms restrict where their students can train. Some people might think that I’m disloyal by training at other academies, call me a ‘creonte’ because I’m seeing more instructors, but I don’t see it like that. I’ll only compete for one gym, but I’ll give thanks and credit to everyone who’s helped me. I may be bringing techniques from my academy to others, I’m also sharing my bringing more knowledge back to my team. I get better, the people I train with get better, and the more that everybody does this BJJ as a whole will get better.

I try to visit gyms everywhere I go, when I’m on holiday, when I’m visiting a friend, or just at the weekend if there’s somewhere I can reach. The benefits both to the individual and the community are huge, and I would recommend that everybody does the same.

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Bend without breaking

EBI 14: The Absolutes - Highlights | Chwytamy ...
Was it worth it? Probably. A feat we should all copy? Probably not.

MMA competitors often tough out submissions for much longer than their BJJ counterparts. This is especially apparent with things like leg locks, where the elite grapplers sometimes tap before the sub is even applied, and with arm bars, where horror inducing, joint popping escapes are far more common in the cage. Why this difference? It’s all about risk and reward.

There are both a chronic and acute risks from submissions. Arm bars give good examples of both of these, and cage fighters frequently hang on to these for much longer before tapping. There are differences in terms of the chronic damage, as MMA fighters might compete once every couple of months, while jiu-jitero sometimes compete at triple that rate, or more, and people tend to compete in BJJ till much later in life than mixed martial arts. Each of those joint attacks add up, and eventually something is going to give. With comparatively few joint attacks, a mixed martial artist might be able to get away with holding out for a while, whereas an active BJJ competitor who holds off submissions unnecessarily long may soon find themselves in a bad way. If you want to keep training and competing, tapping early and often is a necessity.

As for the acute risks? I don’t actually mean the danger of bones breaking, as that’s a danger that affects both types of fighter equally. Consider instead the reward: money wise, there’s usually far more on the line in MMA bouts, or at least shows in general, whatever the sport. Tapping might cost you a great deal financially, and perhaps a greater motivation than that is the prestige. To loose stock, glory, or even a belt, because you weren’t prepared to grit out a bit if pain is a sad thing. I expect this is why Gordon Ryan was so prepared to hold off tapping to Craig Jones at EBI 14; Gordon does need to look after his body if he wants to compete in years to come, but a combination of money and renown made holding off that arm bar more than worth it.

For most of us, tapping early and tapping often is the way forwards. You may need to ask yourself what you’re training for. If it’s health, consider why you would bother holding off a submission for that long. And if it’s fitness, you may want to do a little more cross training, do some yoga to correct imbalances, or lifting smart to help maintain your joints. If it’s fun, then is it really worth risking that much joint damage? If you’re training for competition, you may need to train that much harder, but there’s still a balance to be found with heavy and light training sessions. If there’s something big on the line, then maybe it is worth taking a bit of damage for, but the important thing is knowing when that is. It all depends what you’re trying to get out of it, and what you’re prepared to give.

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